Monday 30th continued
When it comes to rail travel in Eastern Europe, Budapest is a hub, which is why this is the third time I have arrived in Budapest by train. I had tried to pick a train time that would have allowed me to have a cheap as chips massage at the thermal baths but it didn’t work out in the end. Budapest also seems to be where fast western european trains stop and slow eastern european trains start. Still on the “Avala”, I appeared to be the only passenger coming from Vienna who stayed on the train. I was accompanied to the border by a lady with enormous reusable tesco bags that seemed to take up half our cabin.
The train trundled south at a sometimes painfully slow pace. The line is only single track so numerous times we had to wait in sidings to let a terribly important train carrying logs go the other way. The platforms also seem to stop in Budapest: anyone getting off the train had to make an heroic leap down to the ground, luggage being caught by loved ones below. I passed time until the border in the luxurious and ludicrously overstaffed restaurant car. I was the only customer and as I drank my coffee, the head waiter, his assistant and the chef sat down to a three course meal on the table next to me.
I think that is in Asne Seierstad’s book “With Their Backs to the World” (that same author wrote “The Bookseler of Kabul”) that one the people featured quips that there must be more border guards patrolling the frontiers within the former Yugoslavia than in the rest of Europe combined. Becoming now almost a frequent traveller in these parts, I must be becoming familiar to many of them, although admittedly they are more likely to recognise me in my pyjamas as I always seem to cross the border in the middle of the night. These midnight border crossings come with a pang of fear that I am going to be kicked off the train for not having the right visa, despite that little access-all-areas purple book that I keep in my back pocket. Indeed last summer when we were travelling from Belgrade to Greece some Canadians were kicked off the train in the middle of the night at the crossing because they didn’t have the write paperwork.
This time however I was crossing in the middle of the afternoon and the whole experience was a whole lot less worrysome although the border guard did question me for some time on my reasons for going to Belgrade. Safely into Serbia, I transferred to the cabin of an elderly lady where I had spotted that there was a socket from which I could charge my camera. My Serbo-Croat is not that hot and she didn’t speak any English. Nevertheless we were able to communicate to some extent. I found out that she was called Elizabeth and was from Bosnia but was now living in Novi-Sad (of excellent music festival fame). I think she understood that I was an engineer. And when I told her I was going to Romania she started waving her hands above her head in alarm. It’s amazing how far you can get without words. (I later foound out that my Serbian is even worse than I thought: upon verification with higher authorities that evening, it appears that I had told Elizabeth that my name was English and I had asked her if she spoke Oliver. Oh well, at least I tried)
We said our goodbyes at Novi Sad, by which time it had already grown dark. There are not many lights in that part of the Serbian countryside and there was nothing but blackness outside my window. Whereas up until Novi Sad, I had always had fellow passengers and hence, somehow, their company, I felt quite alone on that last bumpy hour of the journey. Finally the train rattled its way across the Danube and slowly made its way into Belgrade station. There to meet me on the platform with warm embraces were Ana and Barbara. It had been almost a year since we first met on the IACES exchange to Ljubljana. After a year of promises to come and see them I had finally arrived in their home city, quite exhausted after twenty-eight hours of travel, but with still enough energy for some celebratory beers. Geeverli! (Ana, please advise on the correct spelling!)